MY OLD MAN
My Old Man by Kate Barrett
'Don't go too near the edge, it's too windy!' What my husband really meant was that he was. But I was excited, I wasn't going to be beaten by a bit of wind and the last few yards; this was an occasion I'd awaited for far too long, so I sat down and pushed myself to the edge of the cliff with my hands.
And there he was - the Old Man of Hoy - standing proud and ancient, his sandstone shoulders dotted with seabirds and a few narrow shelves of grass sprouting from his pate. 'Hello, Old Man!' I said and rested. This was a moment to treasure, a love affair with an old man finally brought to a happy conclusion. I could see 400 feet below me in the Atlantic the Northlink ferry which crosses from Thurso to Stromness in Orkney. The weather was not just windy it was blowing a gale and I pulled my anorak hood closer as I gazed, remembering the first time I'd seen the Old Man of Hoy many, many years before I came to live so near that I could visit him.
The winter of 1963 was long and cruel. Ice and snow lasted well into April and not only water pipes froze but rivers too. On Boxing Day I learned I was to join a merchant ship in London Dock and be employed as ship's librarian. I would travel with the ship north up the east coast picking up passengers and loading cargo, sail round into the Clyde to stay a few days in Glasgow before loading more cargo and the library, then we would head for the Mediterranean and Africa.
But tropical climates did not seem believable in ice-bound Britain as I said goodbye to my shivering parents. I was pleased though when I realized that, while everyone on land struggled against the severe cold, I and the crew of the ship would be snug inside our own independently heated haven.
We set sail in late December into rough seas. That morning was bitter; ropes and wires on deck cut into people's hands, the deck itself was slippery and dangerous with ice particles, lips and ears became numb. I pitied the men who had to work outside while I breakfasted comfortably in my cabin.
We headed out into the North Sea breasting the waves. As it grew light sun broke through heavy cloud to shine bravely over the faint, grey-white line of Northumberland's coast, but on we ploughed to face our worst hazard yet - the racing channel of the Pentland Firth where the currents of the North Sea meet those of the Atlantic. I went on deck not daring to touch the rail in case my fingers froze to the metal, each intake of breath had to be fought for, but the view made my discomfort worthwhile. It was beautiful.
The sea was sparkling and peaked white, the sky clear as gulls cried and screamed about and on our port side the slopes of Sutherland were covered in snow, faintly lined in black where stone walls divided cultivated fields. On our starboard side loomed Orkney's high island, Hoy, snow covered, wild looking and inhospitable.
Hoy has some of the highest cliffs in Britain and we were close enough to see breakers pounding against them like desperate beggars seeking shelter.
I was standing next to the second mate.
"That's the Old Man of Hoy." He said to me, pointing.
Charlie pointed again to a narrow tower of rock which seemed to have split from the main cliff.
"That stack," Charlie said again. "Haven't you heard of it? Hoy's the name of the island and that's called the Old Man of Hoy because it looks like a man's head."
I could see it then, the tall column did indeed look like an old man with a beard and high forehead squatting at the base of the cliff watching the ocean and guarding the coast.
"I've never seen anything so lovely." I breathed carefully, turning to get the most of the view. "I must come back here one day, on land, so that I can explore."
Charlie laughed. "If you come by road it's a helluva long way and there's nothing to see when you get here. You're better off like this, me duck!"
But I didn't believe him and promised myself that one day I would indeed return. I had fallen in love with an old man and his dramatic, awesome beauty and I hugged the memory to me as we sailed on through the Minches. But, life being what it is, traveling as far as Orkney seemed an impossible dream over the next few years, although occasionally I would yearn for wide skies and exhilarating weather.
So, finally, when my husband and I had both retired and deserted the English Midlands, we bought a small house in Orkney and settled down. "We'll go and visit your other Old Man," Ray said. "He's been my rival ever since I can remember."
So here I was, high above the swelling sea I'd sailed on so many years before, so close to my Old Man I could almost touch him. He was part of my youth and I wondered which of us had withstood rougher weather. But I knew too that if I wasn't able to repeat my visit he would still be there, timeless, tied to his rock, solid and dependable.
I sighed with satisfaction and crept back up the slope to my human old man, waiting.
"Fantastic! What a day!" I said.